The Second Cause

My husband and I are privileged to hold a small group of fellow church members at our home. Currently, we are going through Jerry Bridges book, Respectable Sins: Confronting the Sins We Tolerate. In our most recent meeting, we were discussing the chapter on anxiety and frustration. One of Bridges points is that accepting God’s providential will is one of the keys to overcoming these two very common problems we all face. He recommends the writings of John Newton and quotes from a letter Newton wrote to a friend. He says,

“How highly does it become us, both as creatures and as sinners, to submit to the appointments of our maker! And how necessary is it to our peace! This great attainment is too often unthought of, and overlooked; we are prone to fix our attention upon the second causes and immediate instruments of events; forgetting that whatever befalls us is according to his purpose, and therefore must be right and seasonable in itself, and shall in the issue productive of good. (Bridges 2007, 66)

I have given this idea of “second causes” a great deal of thought. As a person who does struggle at times with both anxiety and frustration, I had to ask myself how often I think of the object that brought either of those sins into my life as being the second cause. I must confess, I have never thought of it that way. Typically, my focus is on the thing that in my view provoked my feelings of anxiety, frustration, or any other emotion that I experience as the primary cause and not the second cause.

The second cause is the person, situation, or incident that God has sovereignly allowed into my life to reveal to me an area of my heart that needs attention and/or of a sinful habit that I have formed in my life. Those things are the instruments that God (who is the First Cause) is using to refine my character.

The Phillips translation of the Bible is not one I would ordinarily use, but I think in this case it’s wording of James chapter 1:2 – 8 communicates best what I am trying to say.

When all kinds of trials and temptations (Second Causes) crowd into your lives my brothers, don’t resent them as intruders, but welcome them as friends (from the First Cause)! Realize that they come to test your faith and to produce in you the quality of endurance. (PHILLIPS). (additions mine)

It’s hard to think of welcoming difficulties into my life as friends unless I am thinking spiritual thoughts. When I am thinking right, I can clearly see that many of the things that annoy me or provoke me to anxiety are not fate or bad luck or some stupid random thing that has befallen me, but I can see them as proceeding straight from the hand of the First Cause of my difficulty: God. Because they are from God, they are intended for a useful purpose (Romans 8:28 – 29).

This should and does bring great encouragement! Knowing that my problems are not random but intentional helps me to think about them in light of God’s sovereignty and also helps me to see their purpose is to conform me to the image and likeness of Christ my Lord. My heart can be hard, and my eye is at times blind to sins of all kinds in my life. I need hardships to help me change, and maybe you do too.

Next time you are presented with a James 1 circumstance, instead of focusing on the annoying thing, remind yourself that it proceeds from the hand of a beautiful and loving God whose desire is to make you more like Jesus.